Sometimes, getting there is half the fun. Our next destination in Réunion, Cilaos, involved one of the most interesting and challenging drives I’ve ever done. On an island already infamous for it’s many steep and winding roads, the N5, leading from Ilet Palmistes to Cilaos in the Cirque de Cilaos, is the granddaddy of them all. The road is only approximately 20 km long, but that 20 km of driving involves over 2000 m of elevation gain and loss, over 600 turns (most of them in the 400+ switchbacks), two one-lane tunnels, several one-lane segments, dozens of blind corners, narrow shoulders, and other driving challenges. The road is so twisty that in a few places it even loops back over itself! It truly is one of the most challenging, and most impressive, drives I’ve ever done (especially at night!). And after our first drive up the N5, we emerged from the Peter Both Tunnel to find a small parking area, and, a “Camion Bar”. In the pantheon on Réunionnaise restaurants, if there’s anything that comes in a close second in popularity to the ubiquitous “le Snack Bar”, it would be “Le Camion Bar”. Basically, a food truck. And seeing the “Camion Bar Broderie” was certainly a welcome sight, and a chance to put the twists, turns, and tunnels of the drive behind me as we stopped, enjoyed the view, and had some sandwiches.
Our second day of exploring the Western Coast of Réunion had us staying in the resort town of Hermitage-Les-Bains. It’s definitely a resort town, dominated by several large resorts, and the local dining scene caters to it, with a rather large assortment of restaurants offering up large buffets and extensive cocktail bars. While a few of these places (La Marmite and Coco Beach in particular looked like they had a rather nice assortment of Carris and seafood), we opted to check out one of the quieter places a bit off the beaten path. Our first attempt was the diminutive and subtle L’Arc en Ciel, which looked phenomenal, but were unable to fit us in. But around the corner we found Le Manta, a pleasant restaurant built around two very large and lush outdoor dining gardens (one smoking, “le section fumeur” is still alive and flourishing in France) and a rather extensive menu built around Réunionnaise Creole cuisine.
Our next goal before leaving Saint-Denis was to make sure we tried one of the restaurants known for local Créole cuisine, and in the case of Saint-Denis, there’s one place that has a particularly good reputation for catering to Créole tastes over those of visiting tourists, and that’s Le Reflet des Îles. Located about half a kilometer down Rue Pasteur (where about half of downtown Saint-Denis’s bars and restaurants are located) from the previously reviewed Zanzibar Café, just walking in you can see that it’s a popular place with both the tourists and the locals, with quite a few mainland French and Reunionnaise families all gathered around tables enjoying their rhum cocktails, la Dodo, and serving up large plates of food from various marmites (little cast metal pots traditionally used to cook the local carris, civets, and rougails) located all around the table.
Our second full day on Réunion had us setting out to check out on of the cooler geographic features of the island: the Cirques. Réunion was essentially formed by two volcanoes: the now-extinct Piton des Neiges, and the still active Piton de la Fournaise. For the former, the old volcanic caldera has collapsed and eroded over the last 100,000 years to form three sub-formations: the Cirque, each a very steep mountain valley. All of them are inhabiting, but only two of them, the Cirque de Salazie and the Cirque de Cilaos, are road-accessible (the Cirque de Mafate is accessible only on foot or by air). So we decided to check out the Cirque de Salazie, since it’s a pretty short drive from Saint-Denis. The town of Hell-Bourg is located in the middle of the Cirque de Salazie, and the very rugged terrain makes this a splendidly beautiful French/Creole village located in the mountains. It’s a fairly quiet town, mostly with older Creole architecture, and primarily serves as a stepping-off point for the many hikers visiting the region (indeed, we basically returned to Hell-Bourg twice during our trip, once as hikers, and once driving through to see the forests of Belouve). But after checking out the area, we started to become hungry for lunch, and we immediately found the cute little Crêperie Le Gall.
Well, after a half-day of wandering around exploring the fairly unique town of Saint-Denis (I’m still trying to figure out why Réunion has such an unusually large number of insurance brokers and eyeglass shops… are there some weird niches in French insurance law and health care at play here?), it was time for dinner. One place we passed by that looked quite delicious was Zanzibar Café, located on Rue Pasteur a few blocks from our hotel. While the mainstay of Réunion cuisine is the island-specific carri served most anywhere, there’s also a lot of direct French influence in the food as well; you’ll also find patisseries, cafés, brasseries, charcuteries, and other mainstays of French culinary tradition all over the island (indeed, we stopped at many a fine patisserie located up in the hills kilometers from the cities). Zanzibar is a pretty good example of this: the menu at Zanzibar is basically your standard French cafe menu (steak frites, French chicken dishes, French-style sausages), alongside a rather nice assortment of Malagasy and African dishes.